Social media proliferation? Know your audience first!

This article was originally published in Waltzing Matilda

Every time I come across the Wikipedia list of social networking websites, I am more and more surprised by the rapid development of social media proliferation. There are now a quarter of a million sites that call themselves social networks, up from 850 in two years. What only 7 years ago seemed to be a Silicon-valley-only phenomenon it is now a reality that communication professionals worldwide must be able to understand, control and use to their advantage.

For professionals working in the field of social media, and other social media enthusiasts, it’s common to be randomly hit by an attack of “online omnipresence” – the desire to be on all social media platforms. However, being everywhere just to be there may not bring the results you expect. My advice is to take a step back and start thinking about your audience segmentation.

Of course, there is no harm in experimentation. Experimenting let us gather new evidence, present new benchmarks, and could lead us to question our assumptions on what we think is effective or best practice for sharing content. On the other hand, while we get excited about playing with our new toy, we risk losing the focus on what we use social media for. While some social media accounts seem to be opened almost by default in order to be present on a platform, the stakeholders you are trying to target might not actually be there themselves.

What is audience segmentation?

Audience segmentation is the process of dividing a broad target audience into more specific subgroups, called audience segments. The purpose of dividing up an audience is to make sure you’re most likely to reach the right people with the right message, and this way using your resources as effectively as possible.
A strategy designed for the “general public” is often just that – general, and too general to interest any individual or group very much. By tailoring your efforts to a particular audience segment, using the most relevant communication channel, content and targeted messaging, you can greatly improve your impact. This way, your target audience will be more likely to be reached, pay attention and share your content.

For example, we interact and connect differently with different people on social media depending on our relationship to them – we make a distinction between professional connections, friendships, and more public communication in terms of both the content we choose to share and where we choose to share it. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+ have acknowledged audience segmentation as a primary design feature. Below you will read how you can organize your audience appropriately via some of the features these platforms provide.

Value your audience

Research suggests that the idea of a broad, untargeted outreach will continue to decline in effectiveness. In order to get maximum results from your public relations efforts, you need to spend some time identifying  the media channels that your audience trusts.

Besides, social media is not free. Time, money and other resources are limited and you want to make the best out of it. Audience segmentation helps you make choices about actions that are really necessary and what effects on your communication are realistically bound to happen.

Starting off with segmentation

Marketing strategy has long studied numerous techniques of segmentation. However, they all converge into two main questions when it comes to kicking off with your targeting plan:

  1. Who is your target audience?
  2. Where are they?

Who is your target audience?

Think of your target audience as made of two groups of people:

  • Those who are looking for you and just don’t know it yet.
  • Those you want to make interested in your activities.

In the first instance, you must help them find you. You need to understand who it is that would be looking for the content, research, comments and opinions you provide. Information overload is the arch-enemy of segmentation.

In the second instance, you need to attract key influencers you want to engage with.

Where is your target audience?

Identify who are the people you want to target is not the end of your journey. You must identify where this people “are”, meaning which channels they use to communicate. This takes time but the advantages deriving from this preliminary work will pay off exponentially in comparison to the random opening of X accounts.

For example, there is no need to create and manage a Facebook page if the people you target are not there. Don’t get me wrong, with over 1.1 billion users it is very likely that some of your target audience is on Facebook, but under which affiliation? Are they using it for personal reasons, professional network or a bit of both? If you are looking to target these people in a strictly professional fashion you may want to consider LinkedIn instead.

Data can always tell you a lot. Did you know the European Commission has 80.000 subscribers on Facebook, over 90.000 on Twitter and over 310.000 on Google Plus?

Whether you are trying to verify a personal assumption or trying to convince your supervisor about opening an account on a new platform, empiric data will give you a straight answer. Check if your target audience is sharing content on certain platforms instead of others (i.e. Facebook vs. Linkedin or Google plus). If you ascertain an increasing trend of shared content via a specific platform, respond to that. This means that people interested in your product/content/research are on that platform and care to share it even if you are not actively there. Surely, creating a dedicated page will attract more visits to your main website and create interactions about you. (Keep in mind that before opening an account it is advised to prepare policy guidelines or “line to take” to manage these interactions.)

Now, how do we find your target audience? Below you will find some tips that can help you get started:

  • Google

Sometimes we start off thinking how hard audience segmentation can be and forget the basics. Google should still be your first step when looking for your audience and find out which communication channels they use.

  • Social networks’ search tools

Most social media have a search bar. Use it! You can search for people by name, job title or interest. If they list any of the details you established as your audience, you will be able to find them. For instance, Twitter provides a nice advanced search tool to find people based on what they tweet about even within specific zip codes. Via the Google+ search toolbar you can fine tune your search using many criteria based on what to search (Everyone, People + Pages, Google+ Posts, Sparks, Hangout), from (Everyone, my circles, me) and location (everywhere or within a specific location).

  • Lists, circles, groups…pre-made is good too

Regardless their different names, most social media allow you to create groups of audience. This are “lists” on Twitter, “circles” on G+, “groups” on Facebook and LinkedIn. The advice is “use them“! Being able to organize, observe and interact with specific target groups will make your work way easier. You don’t need to get lost in infinite Twitter data streams or copious Facebook timelines. Place your viewfinder on the target.
Twitter helps us with that as you don’t always have to go through the trouble of creating a list. You can simply borrow one by subscribing to someone else’s public list or borrow a list from directories like Twibes, Listorious and ListAtlas. Google+ circles work somewhat like Twitter lists. Search for Google+ profiles that match one of the social profiles you’re targeting. Let’s say you’re looking for “finance” enthusiasts. Create a “finance” circle, share it and ask people to recommend others with similar interests.

  • (Optional) Set up searches in your social media management dashboard

Sproutsocial, Tweetdeck and Hootsuite can be very helpful. Use the “Add Column” function to create real-time conversation streams by keyword and location. This will help you very much when it comes the time to engage.

Engage sensibly

Not all of your target audiences need to be informed about everything you do. Communicating everything and anything can mark you as a spammer, and undermine all the hard work put into your communication strategy. The same criteria you have used to divide your audience can help you target your content and messages – who will be the most interested in this information? How can I give this specific audience something valuable? Be selective and decide which content is the most worth-sharing, and where.

Keep yourself in the loop

While we keep thinking that strategic communication it all about Twitter, Facebook and G+ it is important to keep an eye out for social media proliferation. For example, though 20% of Facebook users say they check in on the social network once or twice per day, 52% plan to spend less time there in the future. Moreover, 73% of users believe that another social network will soon eclipse Facebook.

In 2012, the most growing social media platform was Pinterest which saw a 1047% increase in unique visitors and is aiming to surpass LinkedIn in 2013. Further interesting insights show the next platform per highest growth was Google+ that saw an 80% increase in traditional web users. These phenomena are hard to predict and show how communication professionals must keep in the lookout for the creation of new media platforms.

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